Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Future proofing university e-infrastructure?

The vision of the national e-Science programme and JISC is to develop and provide future proof IT platforms for universities. The question this discussion raises is which direction universities should take now that they face technological choices? The new way of thinking (from a JISC perspective) is that universities need an open standards platform or range of 'embeddable' open standard platforms that will support many university operations (e-learning, e-research, admin) that can be tailored to each institution or be applied using a generic tool stack depending on need. An example of this technology is the Sakai platform (there are others, e.g. Pluto). Although it is an observably advanced e-learning platform it can also be used to embed research tools developed by researchers as it offers open standards they can use to 'hang' their tools in (e.g. terascale computing tools, embedded model estimators, new forms of database handling/management, alumni management, student enrollment management, accounting). This provides a huge amount of flexibility. What this means is that a researcher can view online experiments and teaching resources under a single point of sign on from any internet enabled computer. The issue presently is that whatever the platform the university chooses now will determine how flexible we can be in, say, 5 or 10 years. For example, choosing Microsoft solutions will imply that researchers will be tied into the Microsoft tool stack in the future; and it would be very difficult to tie in bespoke tools that are now becoming common place in academia into the Microsoft closed source framework.

Much has been said about the potential of Moodle as a VLE, but there is no discussion of the development of research tools within this framework; yet teaching AND research is in need of support simultaneously. A great reservation that I have regarding Moodle (personally speaking and would like to hear your views) is that very little investment is coming in at its base, implying a reduced rate of innovation relative to other platforms. If the university were to choose Moodle for e-Learning, it would mean that independent e-learning and e-research solutions would be needed in the future which is far less efficient (e.g. two sets of programming skills, two servers, two databases, two sign on points, difficulty in transferring common data between the platforms etc.). Ideally, the university should have a Director of e-learning AND e-Research (one person, not two) so that issues of functionality and simplification across the work fields can be addressed simultaneously in an unbiased way.

Key to this discussion is that universities should have a core of 'skill set' simultaneously adept at both e-learning and e-research deployment and tool design that can advise researchers on these matters. To hand this to an external supplier misses the point about what Web 2.0 is all about (i.e. the flexibility to design content and tools to meet the need) as suppliers will find it very difficult to keep abreast of high performance research needs and cannot be expected to have in-house, bespoke, research focused software development skills. Once 'digitally native' researchers come online in a few years, this is what they will want from IT and we need to be in a position to hand it to them when they arrive. Therefore, we need to make the right platform choices now to provide them what they will need in their future. To make the wrong platform choice risks damaging the potential of our future researchers and therefore research outputs.

I look forward to your comments.

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